Western Buddhist Review

Buddhists and Stoics in the Philosophy Café

Posted by dhivan thomas jones on Sat, 12 May, 2018 - 13:22
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dhivan thomas jones

We present here a review of a new book exploring common ground between Buddhism and the philosophical tradition of Stoicism:

More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age

by Antonia Macaro

Icon Books, London, 2018. £12.99 hb

review by Dhīvan

I met the author of More Than Happiness, Antonia Macaro, at a mindfulness retreat in 2016 led by Ven Anālayo,[i] and then again in November 2017 at a Bodhi College weekend on ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’. An encouragingly large number of us listened to Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock talk on philosophy and Buddhism, before ourselves engaging in informed, lively discussion on the theme of the relationship between philosophy and Buddhism as ‘ways of life’. The kind of ‘philosophy’ we are talking about here is not the kind of analytic enterprise taught in modern universities, which is concerned mainly with abstract philosophical problems and arguments. Rather, it is philosophy (‘love of wisdom’) as the actual thinking and living and striving towards the best kind of life for human beings. This sense of ‘philosophy’ was brought to widespread attention by the scholar Pierre Hadot in his pioneering book Philosophy as a Way of Life.[ii] Macaro’s book is a very down to earth and practical introduction to Buddhism and Stoicism as two specific philosophical traditions of thought and practice, bringing into view their common features and concerns, and highlighting the value of a philosophical life.

We could regard More Than Happiness as a contribution to what appears to be an emergent cultural engagement with what we might call ‘secular wisdom’. Western culture has become so post-Christian that there is a big hole where religion used to be; and meanwhile human beings have as great a need as ever, in the midst of scientific and secular culture, for ideas that might guide their lives. The steady growth of Buddhism in the west is one response, but another is a smaller-scale but significant resurgence of Stoicism. This philosophical tradition goes back to 4th c. BCE Greece. A philosopher named Zeno founded the Stoic school, named after the stoa poikile or ‘painted porch’, where they first met in the middle of Athens. The Stoicism that is resurgent today, however, is based on that of the Romans, especially of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, whose works have survived in a more complete form. When, in modern English, we say someone is ‘stoic’ or ‘stoical’, we mean that they endure pain and hardship without complaining. Such an attitude is not untrue to the what Stoics actually valued (while the word ‘epicurean’ is merely a caricature of the Epicurean school of philosophy), but there is also a complex ethical and metaphysical world-view behind Stoicism, of which a level-headed resilience is a useful outcome.

As a summary and comparison of two practical traditions of thought, Macaro’s book is excellent. It is very clearly written, without technical detail but never vague or unclear. Chapter 1 is a scene-setting, in which she gives an overview of Buddhism and Stoicism and explains her approach. I am not a scholar of Stoicism, but judging from her presentation of Buddhism, which I know more about, she has an exact and accurate sense of what recent scholarship reveals about the earliest phase of the traditions. She addresses the knotty problem of the degree to which traditions like Buddhism and Stoicism are religions. In their historical forms, both involve what we would call religious claims; but, for the sake of this book, she extracts useful teachings from each that are compatible with a secular or naturalistic worldview. She presents with an admirable economy the way both traditions have developed philosophical methods and frameworks for their account of the human condition and how to flourish in it. 

In Chapter 2, she sets out the starting problem for any philosophy of life: the existential problem we face, called dukkha by the Buddhists, simply mortality for the Stoics. Buddhists and Stoics agreed that false conceptions about the sources of happiness and a misleading tendency to seek satisfaction in the wrong places leads to suffering, and that an attitude of renunciation is the beginning of a spiritual life. In Chapter 3 she explores the shared idea of philosophy as healing, and spiritual practice as therapy. While the Buddhists proposed a deep transformative insight of our wrong views and emotions to be the basis of health, the Stoics proposed an examination of our faulty beliefs, which are the basis of emotions and decisions. In Chapters 4 and 5, she presents the goals of each tradition: the ideal of nirvāna for the Buddhists, and the particular kind of eudaimonia, ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’ cultivated by the Stoics, specifically, ataraxia or ‘tranquillity’, a state of emotional calm brought about by completely reclaiming responsibility for one’s own thoughts and beliefs. 

In Chapter 6, Macaro turns to the theme which lends her book its title: how the goals of these traditions is ‘more than happiness’. Both traditions stress discipline and tranquility, but also ethics, meaning that the ideal for each is a way of living in relation to what is good. Chapter 7 turns to what each tradition proposes as the kind of appropriate view for the living out of their respective ideals. Macaro does not entirely accept the value of renunciation, as taught by both traditions, emphasising rather the ‘seeing clearly’ that allows us to see things in a correct perspective. In Chapter 8, she discusses the human ideals presented by each tradition: that of the ‘sage’ for the Stoics, and the ‘Buddha’ for the Buddhists. She notes the perfectionism of both traditions, and the difficulty of their ideals, but also how adherents can move incrementally towards emulating these impossibly far-off figures of the Buddha and the sage. Then in Chapter 9, Macaro turns to the kind of practices and spiritual exercises through which Buddhists and Stoics develop and grow. Both traditions involve training, through such disciplines as mindfulness. Chapter 10 summarises ‘10 meditations inspired by Buddhist and Stoic insights’ that we could take into our lives. Here we see what is really meant by ‘philosophies of life’: pithy themes for reflection, such as the advice to ‘consider the bigger picture’. Such themes are easily memorised, but are also tied into well-argued systems of thought, so that we can use them in day to day life, and also develop our understanding of what they entail through study and reflection.

I’ve summarised all this to give a sense of what the book covers. For someone new to the idea of philosophy as a way of life, More Than Happiness is a clear, accessible and accurate guide to both Stoicism and Buddhism. It doesn’t aim to raise too many questions, but rather to gather from both traditions what seems most useful for the contempory spiritual seeker. I would like now, however, to step back from the what the book says, to what it assumes and doesn’t say. In this way I hope to place the book in a bigger context.

The Buddhism that Macaro has chosen to discuss is, as she describes in Chapter 1, what is now called ‘early Buddhism’, which is the kind of Buddhism that is evident in the discourses of the Pāli canon. However, this kind of Buddhism is also something of an abstraction,  because it is a reconstruction by modern scholars and teachers of a way of thought preserved in early Buddhist literature. Since it exists as a reconstruction in the minds of modern western readers, it is a form of Buddhism that is especially attractive to those wishing to develop a secular form of Buddhist spirituality. But one might wish to contrast this construct called ‘early Buddhism’ with some actual Buddhist traditions, such as modern Theravāda, which revolves around the living tradition of monastic practice; or Tibetan Buddhism, with its extraordinary devotionalism and its philosophical debating culture; or with a modern Buddhist movement like Triratna, with its distinctive emphases on friendship and the arts. This contrast reveals how the ‘early Buddhism’ that Macaro assumes to be Buddhism in her book is a somewhat thinned-out and de-actualised version of the various existing traditions of Buddhism. 

This, however, may be a little unfair. Perhaps the version of Buddhism that Macaro evokes is nowadays quite alive in the contemporary flourishing of insight meditation retreat centres, such as Gaia House, which are not tied to particular lineages of Buddhist practice, being more eclectic as well as oriented quite specifically to modern secular culture. But, even granting that ‘early Buddhism’ is alive and well in the form of insight meditation teachings, Macaro’s version of it stops short of exploring the crucial role of community or sangha for spiritual life. The versions both of early Buddhism and of Stoicism described in her book assume a reader interested in a sort of personal and private spiritual life, consonant with the privatization of religion in contemporary secular culture. It might be, however, that this misses out on how participation in spiritual community is the condition for personal transformation. When Buddhists ‘go for refuge’ to the Sangha, they acknowledge the role of the spiritual community in their Dharma lives. From what one can gather, the tradition of Stoicism was more of a personal and private philosophical orientation, but then again (especially in its Roman phase) the Stoic outlook was often most popular among those involved in public life, immersed in the social and political, such as the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.

By drawing attention to the assumptions the author makes in her presentation of Buddhism and Stoicism, I do not particularly mean to criticise her aim or method, which is perhaps to address the contemporary reader in the comfort (or discomfort) of their secular homes. But I would like to prompt anyone who reads Antonia Macaro’s book on towards a deeper considerations of how either Buddhism or Stoicism might be successful philosophical ways of life – actually effective in ending dukkha or healing the soul. In this respect there is another factor, both for Stoicism and Buddhism, that Macaro does not discuss, which is that of commitment. It would not be unfair to say that More Than Happiness presents Buddhism and Stoicism as potentially useful traditions of thought and practice, from which a contemporary person might try to benefit.

Jules Evans, author of Philosophy For Life, an exploration of Greek and Roman philosophies as practical guides to life, distinguishes between two models of contemporary philosophical engagement. In the ‘liberal’ model, authors and teachers present ancient philosophies in their strengths and differences, to be considered and reflected upon.[iii] In this respect, Macaro’s approach represents a liberal model of philosophy as a way of life. But there is also the ‘committed’ model. In this model of philosophy, one may be attracted to some school, and then make a commitment to practice that philosophy (perhaps within its community of practitioners), and it is the existential choice and commitment that is the condition for the transformation and healing that the philosophical life promises.[iv] The role of commitment is central too to Buddhism. Having heard the Dharma one may commit oneself to practice it, and this emotional commitment becomes (along with participation in spiritual community) a condition for success. One commits to practice the precepts, and perhaps to a daily meditation practice. Commitment is important in Stoicism too. I will end by mentioning two recent books, part of the resurgent ‘neo-Stoic’ movement: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine and How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci.[v] These books represent less the ‘liberal’ model of philosophy, and more the ‘commited’ model: they are each by authors who have made the existential choice to live by Stoicism. In this respect, they communicate the philosophy of Stoicism in a living way.

Dharmacārin Dhīvan is the editor of Western Buddhist Review. He is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and author of This Being, That Becomes: the Buddha’s Teaching on Conditionality.

[i] Anālayo is a Buddhist monk and scholar many of whose books are published by Windhorse Publications. Ālokadhāra reviewed Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna (2013) () for Western Buddhist Review, and Sarah Clelland reviewed Emptiness and Compassion (2015).

[ii] Dhīvan reviewed Hadot’s subsequent book Ancient Philosophy, and a related exploration of Hellenistic philosophical schools by John E. Cooper, on his blog.

[iii] Jules Evans, Philosophy For Life And Other Dangerous Situations, Rider, London, 2012, p.191.

[iv] Hadot explores the various existential choices involved in the different Hellenistic schools of philosophy: see Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002, ch.7.

[v] William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life, Oxford University Press, 2009; Massimo Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, Rider, London, 2017. Pigliucci also blogs on ‘How to be a Stoic’

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